Tour Report 13-16 May
13th-16th May 2019
Tour Leaders: Stephen Moss & Graeme Mitchell
Monday 13th May
Another lovely spring evening led to a spontaneous visit to Tealham and Tadham Moors as an introduction to the Somerset Levels. Our first stop brought that wonderful sound of silence – followed by the gradual drip, dripping of Skylark song, which in turn became a deluge. A fine Skylark perched on a nearby post while we watched a distant Buzzard resting on a gate.
Interestingly, as we were watching the birds an employee from the Somerset Rivers Authority was checking the water levels by the side of the road – the drains locally called ‘rhynes’ (pronounced ‘reens’) – as all the water on the levels is managed to control flooding. A most attractive female Wheatear rather unexpectedly popped up onto a fence post and gave good views.
At Jack’s Drove we hoped to see a Short-eared Owl, but it did not show – though a Linnet did sing from a nearby tree. We stopped again by the oak wood to listen to the chattering of the hidden Grey Herons on their nests – two adults flew in – while two Whitethroats sang in the nettles in front of the van, and a willow warbler sang its plaintive song nearby. We could have stayed longer, but Graeme was feeling the vibrations coming from Kay’s kitchen to remind him that supper was on its way.
Tuesday 14th May
Another fine (though rather cool) spring morning, and an early start across Tealham and Tadham Moors to the RSPB’s flagship reserve at Ham Wall. Before we had even got out of the car park we saw a Great White Egret flying over – in full breeding plumage with a black bill. As we left the car park and headed along the disused railway line into the reserve there was also lots of birdsong: Chiffchaffs, Cetti’s and Willow Warblers, Blackcap, and a very obliging Garden Warbler – the first of many – which sat out and sang to us! We also heard a distant Bittern booming, and also a brief snatch of a Cuckoo, while a Great Spotted Woodpecker perched on a fencepost and gave brief but good views.
As we continued towards the first viewing platform some of the group had brief views of a Cetti’s Warbler, while we all managed to see a Whitethroat perched and singing in full view. Reed Warblers also began to sing, and a Kingfisher flew overhead.
At the viewing platform itself, we enjoyed good views of the family of Great Crested Grebes (now with three chicks), Little Grebe, Greylag Geese with goslings, and numerous Swifts, as well as brief views of a Bittern flying past the water tower. As we walked down to the Avalon Hide we had excellent views of a singing Willow Warbler, and also saw a Jay, a flock of Gadwall (with one male Shoveler) and several Great White (and one Little) Egrets. From the hide we saw another pair of Great Crested Grebes, this time on eggs, and a Sedge Warbler as we left the hide – we had seen all eight warbler species by 08.40 am! Walking back we heard (and then briefly saw) a Treecreeper. Back at the viewing platform two Little Egrets were conveniently standing next to a Great White, and as we returned to the car park we saw the first two of many Hobbies, hawking for insects over Walton’s Marsh, and heard an Iberian Water Frog calling.
After coffee and banana bread, we headed over the road into Natural England’s Shapwick and Meare Heath reserve, where we continued to see Garden Warblers and Whitethroats, and finally got good views of both male and female Marsh Harriers, several Hobbies and a Cuckoo flying right past us, showing its characteristic drooping wings and long tail, giving it a very hawk-like appearance.
In the flooded wood by the path to Noah’s Hide we briefly saw another Treecreeper; while from the hide itself we saw two Reed Warblers, at least 50 Mute Swans, a Great White Egret, Greylag and Canada Geese, and another, more distant Cuckoo in flight, plus a flock of Long-tailed Tits on our way back to the main path. By now the sun was bringing out lots of butterflies (our first Red Admiral of the year) and damselflies (including Blue-tailed and Large Red); and also a male and female Marsh Harriers, a brief view of a Bittern and a distant perched Cuckoo – our third sighting of this elusive bird. Finally, just before the car park we heard a singing Goldcrest.
After our usual excellent lunch at King Alfred’s Inn, Burrowbridge (this time outside, as the day was so sunny) we headed along the River Parrett to Stathe where we saw a single Crane feeding in the field to the back of Aller Moor, as well as House Sparrows, Whitethroats and an Orange-tip butterfly. We also stopped briefly near the King Alfred Memorial at Athelney, where we saw a Holly Blue butterfly
Next stop was the RSPB reserve at Greylake, which was a little quieter than usual (perhaps because of the early afternoon heat). Nevertheless, we did have Reed, Sedge and Cetti’s Warblers singing along the path, two male Shovelers, a Marsh Harrier being mobbed by crows and Lapwings, and a distant Roe Deer.
Catcott Lows was much more productive, with a calling Pheasant, and singing Willow Warbler and Sedge Warbler in the car park, and a fine selection of wildfowl and waders from the hide. These included about 45 Black-tailed Godwits, three Greenshanks, Lapwings, several Teal and Shovelers, Little Egrets, Greylag Geese (with goslings) and, best of all, a splendid drake Garganey – surely our most beautiful duck!
Wednesday 15th May
Another beautifully fine and sunny day began with an entertaining introduction to the art of moth catching, after Dominic had set up a moth trap in the garden at Walls Farm. We caught around 10 species including an impressive Poplar Hawkmoth and a Spectacled Moth, along with a Cockchafer (or May Bug) – definitely not a moth!
Having released these delicate creatures back into the hedge, we headed off towards Bridgwater – however, Graeme had a surprise in store with an unscheduled stop at West Huntspill church. The surprise was in the garden of the adjacent rectory where at the top of a large tree was a busy heronry full of nesting Grey Herons (with well-grown chicks), Little Egrets and – a real treat for all – Cattle Egrets in their full breeding finery. We then had brief walk around the churchyard with views of Spotted Flycatcher and Greenfinch before having a quick look into the atmospheric 13th-century church itself.
After negotiating the traffic of Bridgwater we made it to the WWT reserve at Steart Marshes. Close to the carpark were singing Reed Buntings and Sedge Warblers. From the Quantock Hide we enjoyed nesting pairs of Avocets (many with young fluffy chicks) a pair of Oystercatchers with two visible chicks, and a superbly camouflaged Little Ringed Plover sitting on its nest on a small island of shingle. On the lagoon were Shelducks, gulls, a couple of Little Egrets and many Swifts overhead. The call of a Whimbrel was heard, but the bird was not seen.
En route to nearby Wall Common we saw two close Cattle Egrets picking for insects amongst a herd of cows – a scene replicated in many other places around the world – and now here in Somerset! We stopped for coffee from the back of the van and enjoyed Whitethroat and flocks of Linnets. We walked over to the tideline of rounded stones and gazed out to a distant sea. On the mudflats were some Little Egrets and a single Curlew – little else, as the tide was so far out.
We then headed into the Quantocks, driving past Nether Stowey and having a fine lunch at the Plough Inn, although we all agreed that we were somewhat ‘over-chipped’.
Our afternoon walk was through the splendid wood of Hodder’s Coombe. The first of our target birds appeared shortly after leaving the carpark, when several obliging Wood Warblers sang their distinctive song, which has been described as like a ‘spinning coin’. By the gently flowing brook Grey Wagtails appeared on cue, followed shortly afterwards by a magnificent male Pied Flycatcher.
We continued through the wood, with a distant calling Cuckoo and passing Raven overhead. One splendid surprise was the appearance of a Yellowhammer, seen in the middle of a dense bush before the last of our target birds, the Redstart, made an appearance in a tall tree. On the way back to the van there was a brief view of a cruising female Sparrowhawk, Jay, and a Spotted Flycatcher, which made for an excellent afternoon’s haul.
Leaving of the Quantocks we had a scenic drive through more lush woods and heathland where a Kestrel and Stonechat were seen along with some very cute baby foals amongst the heathland ponies. Our last stop at Lydeard Hill brought stunning views of the Vale of Taunton to the south and Bridgwater Bay to the north. Birdlife was quiet; however, we enjoyed a sighting of a single Stonechat and our last bird of the day was another colourful male Redstart.
Thursday 16th May
Our last morning saw us heading up to the slopes of the Mendips, to King’s Wood on the edge of Cheddar. Almost as soon as we had entered the wood we heard the distinctive call of a Nuthatch, which then obligingly came down to take a look at us; above were several Coal Tits feeding and flitting around the leaves. Further into the wood we came across the usual singing birds, plus two Treecreepers; and saw a pair of Blackcaps (male and female) foraging for good. Emerging onto the open ground at the top we watched several Whitethroats (including one in song flight), a distant Meadow Pipit and a surprise – the first Small Heath butterfly of the year.
As often happens during fine weather in spring, Cheddar Reservoir was very quiet (just the usual Great Crested Grebes, Cormorants, Coots, Mallards, a pair of Shovelers and gulls), so after a quick coffee and biscuits we drove into Cheddar village. A walk to the famous cheese shop produced the expected Grey Wagtail (probably two), lots of Swifts and House Martins overhead, and two very out-of-place Herring Gulls on the island in the small pond at the base of the gorge.
For our final hour we drove up the gorge and admired its spectacular scenery, but apart from a Raven and Buzzard, and some singing Skylarks, there were few birds (though we did enjoy bulbous buttercups and an early purple orchid); before we returned to Walls Farm and said our goodbyes.
TOTAL SPECIES: 94